(Visual Theology) The Dome of the Rock (Oleg Grabar)


As I make my way through a little Islamica, I feel that I need to justify each step. For such a vast and pitched phenomenon, there needs to be some justification for what I’m reading when and why. So if anyone knows the critical literature on Oleg Grabar’s The Dome of the Rock, please pitch in. I had seen Grabar’s name mentioned in relation to his book on the formation of Islamic art, and then I saw the Dome of the Rock book. A colleague vouched for it, and I took to it, one because I’m interested in Jerusalem, as well as art and architecture. If I’m tending to read material that might be called “orientalist,” I’d like to think it’s in the finest side of that tradition.

The son of historian of Byzantine art Andre Grabar, Oleg Grabar was a leading figure in the study of Islamic art. He spent time knocking around the Haram al’Sharif when it was a more neglected site under Jordanian rule in the 1950s. His interest in the place is both historical and aesthetic. The Dome of the Rock stands out as a work of art with a distinct visual power, an object of aesthetic feeling or sensation that are both bound up with and independent from religious meanings.

The main theme of The Dome of the Rock is the evolution of religious meanings in relation to the aesthetic force of the sheer presence and image of a place.

The chapter layout runs chronologically. Chapter 1 starts with the site as the Arab occupiers found it, namely as a damaged physical space, left empty under Byzantine rule, but full of memories. Chapter 2 speaks to the visual effect of the place as both transparent and dominant. Chapter 3 looks to the design-formation of the entire Haram into a visually coherent whole between 700-1100, especially under Fatimid rule, over which time the building’s religious identity gells. Chapter 4 looks to the turning of the Dome into a pan-Islamic place under Ayyubid rule after the Crusades when Jerusalem becomes associated with Mecca and Medina.

Grabar notes two functions to the place. The first function is commemorative. Architecturally, the octagonal form of the Dome of the Rock is an old (Greco-Roman?) and unusual figure or form that, according to Grabar, was meant to call attention to itself. Part of the argument is that building was originally intended, first and foremost, to call visual attention to itself as both a political and aesthetic figure. Impossible not to look at, the building is like any form of monumental architecture. The building and its builders want to be looked at, to dominate the visual field. Apart from any one specific religious meaning, the general or what we might call the universal purpose of the octagonal form is commemorative, intended to call attention to a person, divinity, and event (p.98).

The religious function is more particular. The inscriptions in the building (inside and outside) speak to the truth of Islam over against Christianity, namely to the oneness of God, “there is no God but God, One,” who “begets no son and who has no associate in power.” As truth, the building represents a time and a place that are eschatological and paradisiacal. By adding staircases and mihrabs at regular intervals, it was under the Fatimids in the 11th century that the place turns into a prayer site. As a prayer site, the Dome of the Rock and the platform upon which it sits provide points to focus devotional attention. The object of that attention is “the truth of divine presence and divine judgement,” “God, the Revealer or, who created the earth and come again to judge men and women,” a message that is now, finally “filtered through the presence of the Prophet” (pp.175, 154).

Beyond this or that religious meaning, for Grabar what matters most about the building is its sheer aesthetic power, the iconic power to signify, not the thing or message actually signified. For him, it’s the appearance of the place that matters, that it is this power that accounts for the political and religious meanings that have attached to it over time, from the time of the Ummayads up until today as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. He refers to a type of architecture from inside the Muslim tradition, in which the visual presence of the monument is far more important than the actions performed inside (p.206).

Two last things: Grabar points out that all of the design elements in the Dome of the Rock are 20th century reconstructions meant to reflect the origins of the place in the 7th century (pp.1-4). Like any monumental structure, the building is as new as it is old. But more to the point, I want to return to the observation made by Grabar that much of the coherence brought to the Dome of the Rock and the raised platform upon which the building sits came together under Fatimid rule. If this is, indeed, true, then I’m wondering if the gelling of that visual coherence of the Dome has something to do with an Ismaili-Shia visual and visionary theology. This suggest to me the following. You only think you’re looking at something original and real, when actually the power of the place, set in geometric blue tile and vegetal green-gold mosaic, lies precisely in its simulacral construction as an apparitional image rooting real material presence in memory and anticipation.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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